BOSTON—Two federal agencies have recently tightened procedures to avoid potential financial conflicts of interest among staff members. The new procedures at the National Science Foundation and the Office of Technology Assessment follow public disclosure that a staff member at each agency had ties to companies whose products were related to their work.
This perennial thorny issue resurfaced last fall after reports that David T. Kingsbury, assistant director of NSF and chairman of the White House’s Biotechnology Science Coordinating Committee (BSCC), had ties to several subsidiaries of Porton International, a British biotechnology company. The Justice Department is investigating the charges at the request of a congressional committee. Kingsbury let the BSCC in October when the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy restructured the committee (see THE SCIENTIST, November 2, p. 3). His departure appeared unrelated to the criminal investigation. Kingsbury retains his post at NSF, which says its investigation last summer turned up no evidence of conflict of interest.
The OTA revised its procedures following a December 13 article by syndicated columnists Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta. The column asserted that Roger Herdman, the head of OTA’s health and life science division who is working on a study of unorthodox cancer treatments, also owned 50,000 shares of stock in Oncogene Science Inc., which does cancer research. The company is seeking FDA approval for traditional chemotherapy products and cancer drugs.
Although it previously required employees to file an annual financial disclosure form, unlike many other government agencies OTA did not examine whether any were working on projects that might involve financial conflicts of interest. The agency now says it will carry out such reviews beginning with its next series of project proposals. At NSF, general counsel Charles Herz said more detailed rules have been adopted “to catch things in the future that might have slipped through in the past.” The new guidelines will stress that once an individual has had any ties with a company, those ties may give the appearance of affecting the individual’s conduct. Herz said that NSF will also seek to forestall any means through which NSF funding could be used for personal profit, such as a major grant that stipulates the use of a particular type of equipment.
Increased hiring of senior staff with corporate backgrounds and federally funded collaborations between universities and corporations have forced NSF to look more closely at potential conflicts, he added. NSF has even hired a legal consultant, Herz said, to help it “be more careful in the area of corporate interests.”
Tufts University political scientist Sheldon Krimsky has studied the affiliations of more than 800 biomedical scientists and found, for example, that 30 percent of biomedical members of the National Academy of Sciences have formal ties to corporate as well as academic or non-profit institutions. The figure is a lower limit, Krimsky cautioned, because it is based on public accounts of these ties. Krimsky’s sample also included 60 Harvard scientists with formal corporate affiliations at 33 companies.
Krimsky believes that such affilations are not in themselves a conflict of interest but merit more careful scrutiny. And while Krimsky said it is “unconscionable for someone to be getting financial interest from decisions made in a policy or advisory capacity,” he noted that the issue goes beyond a simple question of individual financial gain.
“When scientists maintain ties to commercial institutions related to their research, it distorts the notion of ‘objectivity of expertise’ and threatens their ability to act as independent arbiters,” he said. “Because of this, open disclosure of such affiliations is essential if people are to have confidence in our policy-making process.”
Others, however, say that the problem has been exaggerated. “There is nothing particularly new here” said NSFs Herz. The 1978 Ethics in Government Act has provided ways to deal with government employee conflict-of-interest issues, he said. The act requires most government employees to file a financial disclosure statement.
While Herz maintained that NSF’s recent actions were begun before the Kingsbury affair, he said that financial self-interest is not the sole issue.
“As with Dr. Kingsbury’s case,” Herr noted, “legally the issue often rests on whether a peppercorn of financial interest is involved in the case. But it often bothers me that this is viewed as the major problem. An individual’s background and work history can often account for bias in decision making, but this is rarely, if ever, considered.”
Kingsbury concurs. "I have no complaint about disclosure, only concerns about how one uses the data,” he said. “Does the fact that I was a consultant to a biotechnology company make me pro-industry, or better qualified to understand industry’s shortcomings?
"One of the things that seems to drive this latest round of public interest in this area is the assumption that people can’t compartmentalize their different professional roles,” he said. “I don’t think that is necessarily true.”
Shulman is a freelance writer in
- (The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.6, January 25, 1988)
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